SOAS University of London

Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Culture and Society of China

Course Code:
Unit value:
Year of study:
Year 1 or Year 2

China, as a country, seems to be experiencing dynamic changes, to be a nation in transition. This course seeks to decide whether the changes are as radical as they seem, and to debate the extent to which significant cultural parameters (Jenner's 'tyranny of history') persist or are 're-cycled' despite official and analytical emphasis on change.  If China is a country in transition, where has it come from, and where is it headed?  What have been the critical junctures in China's recent history – 1949?; the Cultural Revolution?; the post-Mao economic reforms?; the events of 1989 at Tiananmen? – and with what impact on different aspects of Chinese cultural and social life?


Knowledge of Chinese language is not required.  Generally the course is taught by means of a 2-hour seminar each week, the first part of which consists of an introductory lecture, and the second part discussion of the topic introduced the previous week.  There are individual tutorials for the return of coursework.  Supplementary to the seminars, we have endeavoured to have separate showings of video, film, or slide presentations, relevant to the course.


This course is available to students on degrees in MA Area Studies as a minor only.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the course

By the end of the course students:

  • will be able to critically evaluate a range of theories and ethnographic source material relating to Chinese society;
  • will be able to locate and use secondary sources relevant to selected topics;
  • will have a grasp of the key debates in the anthropology of China;

This will form a base which will enable MA Anthropology students to write their dissertations (10,000 words) on a topic relating to Japan should they so wish

Scope and syllabus

From the outset, we seek to address the problem of how, and how authoritatively, Chinese culture and society can be 'represented'.  The fact that 1980s and 1990s China has become more accessible to fieldwork or in situ analysis – the outcome of the post-Mao changes – makes the problems of representation different rather than easier to solve.  Throughout the course, we will pay attention to the ways by which different authors claim an authority with regard to their portrayals and analyses of Chinese culture and society.

The title of the course is, itself, something which we will scrutinize.  What counts as Chinese society?  Is it singular, or should it be pluralized?  Does 'Chinese culture' exist other than as an ideological construction promulgated by those in power?  Whose version of what counts as Chinese culture should we examine?  How specific to China are the cultural parameters which provide the focus to the weekly lectures and seminars?  What sort of sense does it make to talk of 'traditional Chinese culture' or 'Confucian values' given how global culture and mass mediated popular culture has 'gained a purchase' in China?  How influential has the Chinese diaspora been for questions of 'Chineseness' and cultural identity?  How should developments in Hong Kong, or Taiwan, or Singapore be taken into account?  

For certain topics on the course, the fullest ethnographies and the most sophisticated analyses derive from the work of anthropologists in (arguably) 'peripherally' Chinese locations.  The adjective 'Chinese' is, then also problematic. Yet we do not intend that a critical appreciation of, say, the dialectical reverberation between China's rapid socio-economic change and its cultural 'templates', or an examination of the social and cultural concomitants of the much vaunted economic vibrancy of a 'Greater China' that includes the 'little dragons' of Taiwan and Hong Kong, should be reduced to vacuous disputes over the semantics of the key terms.

The following gives an indication of the range of topics covered on the course during the current session:

Term 1: 
  • the 'object of knowledge' – problems of representation; 
  • 'Chinese culture' and some food forethought; 
  • state and society in 'traditional' China; 
  • and in the PRC; 
  • 'family' matters; 
  • questions of Chinese education; 
  • popular 'religion(s)'; 
  • patriarchy and the PRC;
  • death rituals and ancestor worship; 
  • cultural tradition and Chinese modernisation.
Term 2: 
  • urban China and fieldwork; 
  • the social impact of the post-Mao reforms; 
  • China's minority peoples; 
  • ritual and theatre; 
  • popular culture and consumption; 
  • communications, television and media; 
  • Chinese cinema; 
  • interpersonal relations (guanxi); 
  • concepts of self, personhood, and gender; 
  • and diaspora, identity, and Chinese culture: on being Chinese?

Method of assessment

The written exam will count for 60%. 2 pieces of coursework will count for 40% (20% each) towards the final mark.

Suggested reading

Recommended Reading:
  • Emily Honig and Gail Hershatter, Personal Voices.  Chinese Women in the 1980s  (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1988)
  • Anita Chan, R. Madsen and J. Unger, Chen Village Under Mao and Deng (Berkeley, California University Press, 1992)
  • W.J.F. Jenner, The Tyranny of History: the Roots of China's Crisis (London, Allen Lane, 1992)
  • Mayfair Yang, Gifts, Favors and Banquets (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1994)
  • Tu Wei-ming (ed.), The Living Tree: the Changing Meaning of Being Chinese Today (Cambridge, Mass, Harvard University Press, London, Routledge, 1994)
  • Margery Wolf, A Thrice-Told Tale: Feminism, Postmodernism, and Ethnographic Responsibility (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1992)
  • Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Elizabeth Perry (eds.), Popular Protest and Political Culture in Modern China: Learning from 1989 (Boulder, Westview Press, 1992)
  • James L. Watson (ed.), Golden Arches East.  McDonalds in East Asia (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1997)
  • Gordon Redding, The Spirit of Chinese Capitalism (Berlin, de Gruyter, 1990)
  • Elisabeth Croll, From Heaven to Earth.  Images and Experiences of Development in China (London, Routledge, 1993)
  • Deborah Davis and Stevan  Harrell (eds.), Chinese Families in the Post-Mao Era (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1993)
  • Sulamith and Jack Potter, China's Peasants.  The Anthropology of a Revolution (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990)
  • Perry Link et al. (eds.), Unofficial China: Popular Culture and Thought in the People's Republic (Boulder, Westview, 1989)
  • Suzanne Pepper, 'Post-Mao reforms in Chinese education: can the ghosts of the past be laid to rest?' in Irving Epstein (ed.), Chinese Education: Problems, Policies, and Prospects (New York, Yale University Press, 1991)
  • Robert Weller, Unities and Diversities in Chinese Religion (Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1987)
  • Deborah Davis-Friedmann, Long Lives: Chinese Elderly and the Communist Revolution (Harvard, Harvard University Press, 2nd edition, 1991)
  • James L. Watson and Evelyn Rawski (eds.), Death Ritual in Late Imperial and Modern China (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1988)
  • David Goodman and Beverley Hooper (eds.), China's Quiet Revolution: New Interactions between State and Society (New York, St. Martins Press, 1996)
  • Charlotte Ikels, The Return of the God of Wealth: the Transition to a Market Economy in Urban China (Stanford, Stanford University  Press, 1996)
  • James Lull, China Turned On: Television, Reform and Resistance (London, Routledge, 1991)


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules